A powerful coming-of-age-in-America story that reads like a memoir, this debut novel from immigrant author Jean Kwok reminded me a bit of the times in my life when I've felt like an outsider looking in, not quite fitting in.
I grew up with my dad in the Foreign Service, and while we spent more time Stateside than many Foreign Service families, I recall clearly our moves to West Berlin midway through my 4th grade year, to Islamabad, Pakistan after 6th grade and my return to the U.S. in the middle of 9th grade. My struggles to navigate my way through new school and make friends are familiar to any kid who had to move around, but they were compounded by the added complexities of a new language and an unfamiliar culture.
It seems trivial comparing my relatively minor struggles to fit in to main character Kimberly Chang's travails in Brooklyn. After all, she has to deal with a huge language barrier, total culture shock and the utter poverty as she fights to win scholarships while working in a sweatshop alongside her widowed mother. But I still remember my return to the U.S. after nearly 6 years abroad. You might think an American teen returning to public high school alongside some of the same kids she left behind in 4th grade would have a fairly seamless transition.
You'd be wrong. I had culture shock. A minor case, no doubt, but culture shock all the same.
Apparently watching a few old episodes of DeGrassi High and listening to a tape my cousin made of an Omaha Top 40 station did not prepare me to be cool in Arlington, Virginia in 1991. I didn't know any of the TV shows on the air. I couldn't name any of the cool bands. I wasn't wearing any of the cool brands. And I had no idea my bangs should be curled, teased and sprayed into gravity-defying sausage rolls. (Besides, trying to catch up was hopeless as I didn't have a curling iron in the right voltage and the drugstore hair care aisle gave me a panic attack.)